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Asian American pan-ethnic congregations are emergent phenomena in the San Francisco Bay area. Yet ministers do not agree on their teachings on Asian American identity. Their institutional locations, as either mainline Christian or evangelical, shape their biblical interpretations and inform these divergent teachings. In particular, the two groups employ different institutional logics that govern how they organize their churches. With these logics, ministers read Scriptures in ways that promote specific understandings of ethnic/racial identity. Organized around tolerance and justice, mainline Christians see Asian Americans as individuals who need to reclaim their ethnic identity and struggle against racial discrimination. Evangelicals, in contrast, organize around personal concerns and church growth. They view Asian Americans as individuals with similar family patterns, psychological issues, and social needs. Both groups utilize various biblical passages to support these understandings of Asian American identi ty.
If you're Japanese American or Asian American, that has some particular shape to it. It shows up in lots of common ways: "Where are you from?" And you say, "San Francisco." And they say, "No, really. Where are you from?"
That's one set, the racial set. I think that's primary in terms of being the most intense, the thing that surfaces early as to character formation. The other thing has to do with a person's discovery of who they are in terms of their ancestry. Or who they are as a generation of peoples. That's a common thing I call ethnic.
--A mainline Christian minister
I'm not sure this is specifically the Asian American experience. These are the general principles: The idea of the focus on education or the idea of accomplishment. The idea of having parents that were not as affirming or affectionate. Dealing with the struggle of Asian friends as well as Caucasian friends. Many Asian American Christians have a very bitter, past experience with the [ethnic] church. We have had to deal with two cultures and some that come into play as well. Those may be the characteristics of what an Asian American is like.
An evangelical pastor
These ministers' definitions of Asian American, pan-ethnic group identity differ significantly. (1) The first, representative of mainline Christian ministers, understands Asian Americans as a racial minority group with a common history of cultural oppression and racism. According to these ministers, Asian Americans experience marginalization as outsiders to mainstream society, which is evidenced by the oft-asked question, "Where are you from?" Asian Americans must deal with the reclaiming of their ethnic identity and heritage because of this cultural oppression. In contrast, evangelical pastors see Asian Americans as a spiritual consumer target group made up of personal networks and lifestyle affinities. As the above quotation suggests, they view Asian Americans as a group with an emotionally distant upbringing and an ethic for academic and professional success. Why do these ministers teach such different understandings for the same group of people, Asian Americans?
I argue that the differing institutional locations of evangelicals and mainline ministers shape their interpretations of Scriptures and, subsequently, their understanding of Asian American identity. Pan-ethnic groups, as defined by David Lopez and Yen Le Espiritu, are politico-cultural collectivities made up of people of previously distinct tribal, ethnic, or national origins. (2) Sociologists of race and ethnicity note that pan-ethnicity is first and foremost a political category that groups utilize to further their material interests (Padilla; Cornell; Espiritu; Omi and Winant).
Ministers, however, have ideal interests in organizing groups of Asian Americans in that they seek to make congregations grow, evangelize, or be a prophetic voice for justice to a people. These religious interests provide impetus to establish new, pan-ethnic congregations that are different from ethnic-specific congregations. In order to motivate and mobilize their congregations to form along pan-ethnic lines, ministers must develop teachings that legitimate pan-ethnic identity. The distinctive institutional locations of evangelical and mainline Asian American ministers help them develop different notions of pan-ethnic identity. By articulating these particular traits, the ministers define the social and the symbolic boundaries of the group--the markers that create distinctions between themselves and others (Barth; Taylor and Whittier; Nagel).
This paper will first explore the organizational fields that divide mainline Asian American Christian ministers from evangelicals. These fields are professional circles--ministerial networks, seminaries, publishing houses, and denominational caucuses--that promote certain logics for congregational development. Institutional logics are organizing imperatives that shape and constrain the development and culture of an institution (Friedland and Alford). Second, I elaborate on the institutional logics of mainline Christians that encourage tolerance and social justice. The teachings of one mainline Asian American congregation reveal the linkages between these institutional logics and its teachings of the Bible. Third, I discuss the institutional logics held by evangelicals. Contrasting sharply with the views of mainline Christian ministers, these logics focus on personal relationship with Jesus and church growth. Teachings from an evangelical Asian American church demonstrate how this group applies Scriptures to t he experience of contemporary Asian Americans.
The idea of a group of people, Asian Americans, is still new. Ministers, as cultural entrepreneurs, thus have much say and influence over the construction of this new grouping. Their sermons, teachings, and writings make up religious discourse that establishes the categories by which their congregations view and interact with the world. Week after week, congregational members hear and process the messages about the sacred, their identity in the world, and their role in their faith community. What ministers say--and do not say--about pan-ethnicity in front of the congregation represents their articulation of racial meanings.
This study includes in-depth interviews of forty-four ministers who pastor Asian American Christian congregations in the San Francisco Bay area. (3) I interviewed the ministers about their views on topics such as the nature of racial and ethnic groups, their theology, and the role of the church within the community. (4) Thirty-one of the congregations are fundamentalist or evangelical, and thirteen are mainline Christian (see appendix). (5)
To understand how pastors' institutional affiliations affect their biblical teachings, I have conducted participant observation for a year each at a mainline pan-ethnic congregation and an evangelical pan-ethnic congregation. These congregations are exemplary in demonstrating the connection between evangelical or mainline institutional logic and pan-ethnic identity. Both of these churches, located within three miles of one another, began as Japanese American congregations but now claim to be Asian American ones. Their members are similar in generation, class background, and educational attainment. Yet their ministers' interpretations of biblical passages illustrate very different institutional locations.
DIFFERING INSTITUTIONAL LOCATIONS: MAINLINE VERSUS EVANGELICAL ORGANIZATIONAL FIELDS
Asian American ministers clearly divide into two camps. Not only do the ministers align as either fundamentalist/evangelical or mainline, but they also identify themselves by articulating their differences from the other camp. This process of sell-categorization transforms individuals into groups (Hogg). Furthermore, ministers affiliate more with those on their side of the spectrum and network within their own separate organizational fields. An organizational field includes "groups or organizations producing similar products or services as well as their critical exchange partners, sources of funding, regulatory groups, professional or trade associations, and other sources of normative and cognitive influence" (Scott: 173). Within a religious organizational field, ministers circulate similar normative and professional expectations about the role, function, and activities of churches. They develop common worldviews about ministry, which in turn affect biblical interpretations.
The Mainline Christian Organizational Field
Mainline church leaders look to their denominations, seminaries, and nonprofit organizations within their organizational field to establish assumptions about biblical interpretation and racial understandings. Mainline denominations recognized and established pan-ethnic Asian American professional caucuses and youth camps as early as 1971. Acknowledging a need for Asian American leadership development, representation on boards, and resources for Asian American ministries, these caucuses advocated official recognition within their respective denominations. (6)
Mainline seminaries promote understandings about pan-ethnicity as well. The mainline Graduate Theological Union (GTU), for example, has trained several Asian American ministers in the Bay area. As early as 1972, GTU has provided institutional space for the Asian Center for Theologies and Strategies, now called the Pacific Asian Center for Theologies and Strategies (PACTS). PACTS and other schools of GTU sponsor courses on "Asian American Religions" and employ texts such as Out of Silence: Emerging Themes in Asian American Churches (Matsuoka). Formal education thus establishes normative pressures to organize along pan-ethnic lines.
The community nonprofit world also furnishes ideas about ethnicity and race to the church. Mainline liberal congregations, which tend to be involved in community issues of race and social justice, work closely with these nonprofit organizations. Within the San Francisco Bay area, the Asian American nonprofit sector is especially well-established with long-standing organizations such as the Asian Law Caucus, Asian Neighborhood Design, and Asian Health Services. Because their congregations work with the same kinds of …